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I write letters

July 13, 2012

Occasionally I decide I have to write letters to some people in my life, and that happened yesterday. The first two letters were very similar, and in both, I mentioned issues I’m having with a third person. So I decided to write to the third person as well.

In my letter to the third person, I mentioned a fourth person — my mother.

I do feel an especial ambivalence about writing to someone else about my issues with my mother. And yet, I’ve composed a great many of these sorts of letters. In the seven years we’ve been estranged, I would guess everyone else my mother has spoken to about me is sick to death of hearing about what she thinks the problems are. Relentless in my mother’s middle name. Probably they agree to append her entreaties to me to their own correspondence with me just to get her to shut up about it.

Both of my parents are very poor listeners generally. And when I have spoken to them in person, they tend to pick out one word out of 10, combine them to make word salad, and then remonstrate with me against nonsensical positions I don’t even hold. So as much as I really wanted to be forthright and clear about why I wanted to end our relationship, I knew it wouldn’t do any good. They wouldn’t engage with my actual reasons. Therefore I picked proxy reasons to stand in for all the others. I picked something  — that was a real problem, albeit not one of the major ones — that I thought my parents would find comprehensible as a problem, and could not then assail in their usual manner.

Seven years ago, I could’ve written a book about my problems with them (but who would want to read it? Hell, I wouldn’t want to write it!) As time has passed, I’ve continued to think about those issues, looking for common themes and/or underlying causes.

As I wrote my letter yesterday, I found myself unexpectedly able to distill all the complexity into nine sentences. Which contained two cataclysmic epiphanies.

The most dreadful conversation of my life finally makes sense! (22 years later) Other unpleasant interactions during the intervening 15 years fit into this new framework too. In fact, I almost think these two entangled ideas explain my mother’s entire arc of emotional development.

Whenever I attain (what feels like) a new insight into my mother’s behavior, I feel renewed compassion for her, as well as sadness at all the time she’s spent re-creating the same dysfunctional patterns wherever she goes. She must be in agonizing emotional pain all the time, with no idea why, or how it could be changed.

I almost wish I could sit her down and explain stuff. Not because I’m so smart and enlightened; more because I hate seeing people in pain, especially when fixing the underlying issue(s) probably feels hopeless, but isn’t.

Of course I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist. Maybe I’m totally off-base.

Besides that, to have any sort of conversation with my mother, I would be explicitly resurrecting a relationship with her. And I don’t want to do that.


Three days ago, I went to see Pixar’s movie, Brave. Spouse and I had separately read reviews of it — all of them were mixed. I still wanted to see it anyway, for solidarity with female-centered stories, if nothing else; he didn’t find that a compelling reason. So we didn’t go. But I decided to go for myself. And I loved it! I saw it again this afternoon.

Merida doesn’t remind me so much of who I was as a child, but as someone I could have been. Our personalities and interests are similar; our family circumstances,  totally different. What could it have been like to grow up with a father who encouraged my interests? A father who liked spending time with me? Even more incomprehensible is trying to imagine a mother doting on her little girl, from the inside. Parents who knew who I was and loved me. Parents who liked spending time with me because of who I was.

I write the words but it’s as much a fairy tale as a story of unicorns and dragons.

I have a decently-sized extended family. I knew all four of my grandparents (although my father’s mother died when I was tiny, and I barely remember her). Each of my grandparents came from big families, so I had lots of great aunts and great uncles. I spent time with many of my parents’ first cousins, and even some of their second cousins. I have 7 aunts, 6 uncles, and 20-something first cousins of my own.  I have three siblings, and two nieces.

Out of all of those people, I felt loved for who I was only by my mother’s mother, and only when we became friends as adults. We had 12 short years together; she died 14 years ago. Gods, I still miss her.

Someone whose face lights up when I walk through the door? Spouse. A few friends, including some long dead. I think that’s it.


I won’t send any of my letters as written, and I probably won’t send them in any form.  So why do I keep writing letters? They are an excellent way to discover and distill my thoughts and feelings.

More importantly, though, my letters allow me to hope that a connection between us still exists. That conversation between us is not only possible, but could improve our understanding of each other. Because they could write back, telling me all about what matters to them.

(They don’t. Usually the only response is a resounding silence.)

I write the letters. And then I don’t send them. And so is hope retained.

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